A little while ago, amid the timeless blur of pandemic lockdown, a calendar ping alerted me that April 15—Tax Day—was nigh. I had completely forgotten to set up an appointment with my accountant. Emailing him in a panic, I was relieved when he responded that he had a slot left the day before Saint Patrick’s Day. He wouldn’t be meeting clients in person this year, because of COVID-19, he explained, but we could go over my 2020 expenses on Zoom. (After our one-on-one, the IRS bumped the filing date, but I had no way of knowing that a reprieve was coming.) Opening the Documents folder on my computer, I began hunting for my “2020 Receipts” file, so I could prepare for our meeting.
For 15 years, ever since I went freelance, I’ve scrupulously registered my work-related expenses, listing every meal, journey, performance, book, ball game, and pencil I pay for that could conceivably, legally, count as a deduction. My accountant has often praised the thoroughness of my records. Once, he even remarked that I would make a good accountant—which was flattering, but also a little humiliating. If you’re a freelancer, a “creative,” you like to think of yourself as having such a Bohemian sensibility that keeping precise financial records would be beyond you.
[Monica Prasad: Filing your taxes is an expensive time sink. That’s not an accident.]
I doubted that my accountant would praise my bookkeeping this time around. No matter how many times I scrolled up and down the Documents pane, no matter how many ways I entered Receipts 2020 (2020 Receipts? Finances 2020? 2020 Taxes?) in the search box, nothing turned up. I saw “Receipts 2019,” “Receipts 2018,” and even “Receipts 2010” leering at me from the screen, but no 2020. With a sense of dread, I had to admit that I had failed to create a financial record of the year. The awful truth hit me like a nightmare you have in college—you forgot to attend some class all term long, did none of the homework, and now are doomed to get an F. Waking in a cold sweat, you slowly comprehend that it was only a bad dream. But this was no dream. My hard drive was bare. I had failed 2020. In the past, my daily entry of deductibles had supplied the evidence of each year’s existence, though I hadn’t thought of it that way. Minus that evidence, how could I prove that I had participated in 2020 at all? No highlights glimmered in the retrospective haze. It was as if the year had deducted itself from my life.
Leaning back in my desk chair, I took a breath. Maybe I had kept no record, but that did not mean that no record was out there. Nearly everything I pay for is purchased with a credit card, debit card, or automatic EFT payment, so I probably would be able to call up the missing months and reconstruct the year. I hoped.
After belatedly creating a “2020 Receipts” document, three months into 2021, I opened my Chase Visa account, clicked on January 2020, and was reassured to see ranks of entries march out on parade, column after column. One by one, I herded them into their categories: public transportation, meals, culture.
Why was that one taxi so expensive? I wondered. Oh, right—January 8. That was the ride to Porgy and Bess, at the Metropolitan Opera, four miles from the East Village, where I live. A generous friend had taken me to see it as a late birthday present. The humble, workaday set of Catfish Row had radiated life from the stage, more vital than the velvet-and-crystal precincts that surrounded it. I remembered the beauty of the cast, the power of their singing, the gorgeousness of the George Gershwin score. We went to a restaurant afterward called Cafe Fiorello, a place I’d first gone to in 1986, during a college summer break, after seeing Mikhail Baryshnikov dance in Giselle.
I moved along on the Chase screen. What was Le Petit Poulet—“the little chicken”—on the first page of February? Could that count as a deductible? Oh, yes. That was brunch with a friend who had wanted advice on starting a magazine. We’d gone there for French onion soup after strolling through an exhibition at the Morgan Library on the French literary rebel Alfred Jarry, a forerunner of the Dadaists. On the next page, a matinee of a new Tracy Letts show on Broadway, The Minutes, about a town-council meeting that descends into chaos when a member (Armie Hammer) digs up the town’s racist past. A lot of us had gone mostly to ogle Armie, but from the last row of the back balcony, he was just a speck. After, we had hurried across the street into a café, where we took up the play’s political themes. Everyone wanted to talk about the 2020 Democratic race. Who would be the nominee? Mayor Pete, Bernie, Amy Klobuchar? Surely not Joe Biden.
[From the April 2021 issue: You won’t remember the pandemic the way you think you will]
An unfamiliar charge popped up. “Ode to Babel”? Huh? Should I have disputed it? No—that was a Brooklyn cocktail lounge cum art gallery, where a friend of mine, a prolific podcaster, had shared her expertise over rum drinks—I was about to launch a podcast of my own, and needed advice. Next up … a giant order from my local Thai restaurant. How could I have been that hungry? Then I remembered—that was the week when my publisher sent a vetter, fluent in Italian, to my apartment to go over the galleys of a novel I’d translated. We had worked together for days, five feet apart, me in the study at the desktop computer, she at the kitchen table at a laptop—uninterrupted except by the food-delivery person buzzing up.
When I advanced into March, the procession of rides, feasts, shows, exhibitions, and outings thinned. My translation sidekick had contracted COVID-19 that month. She recovered quickly, but by the middle of the month, tens of thousands of New Yorkers had caught the coronavirus, and the city went into lockdown. I had been eagerly awaiting the first New York City FC soccer game, but the season, of course, was canceled. I stopped taking taxis; stopped seeing shows, lectures, friends; stopped leaving my apartment, except to go to the drugstore or the grocery. The only public performances I attended all spring took place in my living room, every night at seven, when I threw open the front window and banged a spoon against a pan, joining the chorus of applause from the neighboring tenements, thanking the health-care workers who were putting themselves at risk to help the people of our city.
As I clicked on, through April, May, June, July, August, September, the lists of charges narrowed and grew repetitive. Rite Aid, Key Food, Rite Aid, Key Food; ink, books, paper, Rite Aid; subscriptions to magazines, newspapers, and streaming services; drugstore, grocery store, drugstore. In normal years, despite my rigorous record-keeping, I need a couple of days to comb through the receipts, rack my brain for overlooked expenses, add everything up, double-check the math and the margins, and send the roundup to my accountant. But documenting 2020 took only a couple of hours. I scanned the pages and sent them off, and during our Zoom session, my accountant congratulated me. I had spent so much less than usual, he said, that even though I had fewer expenses, I would come out all right, tax-wise.
I didn’t feel like rejoicing. I preferred the suspense of earlier tax seasons, when I would revisit the expenses I’d incurred and agonize over whether they would be enough to offset whatever my 1099s showed I had earned. I’d always been too busy—seeing something, interviewing someone, traveling somewhere—to keep track of my freelance income or gain any real sense of the tax load the IRS might ask me to bear.
[Read: The 10-second tax return]
In that moment, I realized that the deductions I had charted for so many years, always feeling cloddish for my meticulousness, always worrying that they were excessive, were not boring or extravagant. They were the carrying charges of culture, necessary additions to life, not frivolous subtractions from it. The black ant lines of text I had compiled dutifully for decades did not just mark transactions and amounts; they represented the people, places, events, encounters, and ideas that defined and colored each year, making it distinct. My deductions, I saw, were my memories. Turning to the computer, I opened my old tax roundups—2019, 2018, 2017—and recognized that they were diaries, encrypted as expenses. As the categories and entries flooded forth, page after page, I read in them a chronicle of the ordinary, extraordinary events that defined the thriving, participatory, pre-pandemic world, whose pleasures, and costs, have lately been subtracted from all of our lives.
When tax time comes around next year, I hope all of us will have more to deduct, and more to remember.